A Deceptive Lightness of Touch

Brian FitzGibbon discusses translating Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Hotel Silence

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir,
Hotel Silence.
Translated by Brian FitzGibbon.
Pushkin Press, £9.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Brian FitzGibbon is a freelance writer and translator based in Reykjavík, Iceland. He has translated Hallgrímur Helgason’s novels 101 Reykjavík (2002) and Woman at 1000 Degrees (2018), as well as three novels by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir: The Greenhouse (2012), Butterflies in November (2013), and, just last month, Hotel Silence.

In reviewing Hotel Silence for Splice, Alec Dewar praised FitzGibbon’s “deft” translation of Auður’s novel: “the prose is terse without being so dour that it becomes demoralising; there’s a briskness to its pace, and an ease to its idiomatic expressions, even when it dwells on harrowing issues and events.” Following the recent publication of the novel, Brian FitzGibbon was generous enough to engage with Alec via email and discuss the rewards of Auður’s work.

After The Greenhouse and Butterflies in November, Hotel Silence is your third translation of a novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. How did you first come across her novels?

With a population of just over 330,000 people, there’s a fair chance that you’ll eventually meet everyone there is to meet in Iceland. For such a tiny nation, it has a very rich cultural life where people in the same fields have a naturally tendency to gravitate towards each other. I was very lucky that Auður approached me to translate a small section from The Greenhouse very early on and then eventually asked me to translate the whole book.

Is it usually the case in Iceland that an author would approach a translator and then one or both of them would approach publishers with a completed translation? Even for a novel like The Greenhouse, which by that stage had been highly regarded in Iceland and received some awards recognition?

The book had already been translated into French, and English-language publishers were already aware of its success in France. Generally speaking, though, publishers like to see a translated sample before they’ll finance the translation of an entire book. But there is no set procedure, really, and Auður is a very independent author who likes to follow her own instincts.

Like The Greenhouse, Hotel Silence is an Icelandic novel but not really a novel of, or about, Iceland, since most of the narrative action takes place abroad in an unnamed country. In what sense would you say that it is distinctly Icelandic? Are there ways in which it exemplifies or trades on aspects of Icelandic culture, or engages specifically with Iceland’s literary culture?

The fact that the author decides to leave these countries unnamed gives her stories a universal quality, of course, but in a way it also makes them even more Icelandic in my opinion. A lot of Icelanders seem to divide the world into two very broad geographic locations: heima or home, and abroad. Where that “abroad” happens to be is almost of secondary importance; what matters is that it’s “away”. That’s a common thread in almost all of Auður’s books, I think. Her characters are often driven by an undefined longing to leave home, to no longer be where they are, to be elsewhere, and that’s what sets them in motion, whether it’s to another part of the country, as is the case in Butterflies in November, or abroad as in The Greenhouse and Hotel Silence.

This drive reflects a form of wanderlust that’s common to many islanders, I think, but particularly Icelanders. Travel becomes the only way they can break loose and move through the landscapes of their souls. Then, once they have left, another longing slowly starts to manifest itself: the magnetic pull of home. Being an Irishman, and therefore an islander too, I can relate to this experience. But I think the separation is even stronger in the case of Icelanders because they speak a language that’s spoken by only 330,000 people, as opposed to English, which is spoken by what? — more than twenty per cent of the world’s population, maybe. That’s a factor that can so easily be forgotten or underestimated, particularly when we read books in translation. No matter how far Icelanders travel, their language will always keep them anchored to the Icelandic psyche and home.

So, yes, I think all of these elements exemplify elements of Icelandic culture, while at the same time being universal. By focusing on the microcosmic worlds of her characters, Auður goes to the very core of what makes all of us human. Another particularly Icelandic trait in Auður’s novels is the taciturn nature of her characters and their uncommunicativeness. In Hotel Silence, her hero is an inarticulate everyman whose stiff attempts at conversation are often outweighed by what remains unsaid. Auður creates voices like his very delicately; it takes a very special kind of writer to do that.

Auður’s prose style, in your translation, is quite idiosyncratic, characterised by passages of clear and vivid description which are then punctuated by aphoristic remarks (eg. “In the land of death there isn’t the same urgency to die” or “At our latitudes people mostly kill themselves in the spring. People can’t bear the idea of the earth renewing itself. Of everything starting anew except themselves.”). How difficult is it to render this pithy narrative voice in English while remaining true to the stresses, cadences, and rhythms of Icelandic? That is, what are the creative trade-offs between prosody and clarity in the act of translation?

Whenever I translate a novel, I always try to find the right voice in my head. Ideally my goal is to become an invisible bridge between the author and her foreign readers. I always hope that the readers will forget that they’re reading a translation and just immerse themselves in the work. But that can be a delicate balancing act at times.

If Auður’s prose style seems idiosyncratic in my translation, I like to think that’s because it is in the original too. She has a deceptive lightness of touch that can seamlessly interweave fairly prosaic conversations that could be about something as trivial as the weather or shopping lists with something more poetic or even abstract, and it can sometimes be quite challenging to make that same seamless shift in English.  Sometimes the authors I translate might agonise over an alliteration or wordplay they’re afraid I might be losing, but wherever possible I always try to balance prosody and clarity as best I can. With Auður, on the whole, I think that’s generally worked out quite well, and she has always been extremely helpful in our revisions of the texts. She is always there to guide me and then knows when to let go. Authors are a lot freer than their translators — writers can enjoy the luxury of being cryptic and ambiguous, whereas editors will often try to pin translators down to very specific meanings and interpretations in a text.

The Icelandic title of Hotel SilenceÖr — refers to a prominent theme in the novel, namely scarring. What was behind the decision to give the book the English title it finally received?

Titles often come down to marketing and how foreign publishers feel they might go down in their respective countries. Originally, I simply translated the title as Scars, which is a direct translation of Ör. I think it was the French publishers and Auður who first came up with the title of Hotel Silence for the French translation, and that title kind of caught on. Even the Italian version is called Hotel Silence and not Hotel Silenzio.

It’s funny how these titles migrate and change between languages. The original title of Butterflies in November is actually Rigning í nóvember, which means Rain in November, and it was Auður’s German publishers who came up with the idea of using butterflies in their title, which I think is quite beautiful.

For readers impressed or swept up by the book, what next? Which other Icelandic authors would you recommend to readers who respond to Hotel Silence?

Auður is a fairly unique voice, I think, but for those who are curious to delve more into Icelandic literature in general, I can think of no greater starting point than Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness’ epic novel Independent People (1945). Otherwise, there’s a fairly good selection of contemporary Icelandic authors in translation these days and I would encourage readers to just explore them for themselves.

Although I haven’t read it yet, I’ve heard great things about Sjón’s novel From the Mouth of the Whale (2008), translated by Victoria Cribb. For very different but equally interesting experiences, readers might also enjoy Hallgrímur Helgason’s 101 Reykjavik and the more recent Woman at 1000 Degrees. I should add that those latter two books were translated by me, so I guess that counts as a plug.

About Alec Dewar

Alec Dewar is a researcher in contemporary Nordic literature at St. Andrews University, Scotland. His essays and reviews have appeared in Scandinavian StudiesScandinavica, and Edda. He wrote exclusively about contemporary Icelandic literature for Splice throughout 2018, and his book on the subject, Look North, will be published by Splice in 2019. He continues to contribute to Splice on an occasional basis and takes care of social media, tweeting @ThisIsSplice.